Dust Boards


Well-known member
I am considering a Pennsylvania late 18th century walnut chippendale 4 drawer chest of drawers with ogee bracket feet, fluted quarter columns, original brass pulls & full dust boards. The only reason this chest interests me is because of the dust boards (yeah i know, I'm weird). Dust boards on period American chests are unusual, anyone know what the deal is on them or why american makers mostly did not install them?


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James, Weight. You will see many if not most pieces in the Shenandoah valley with full size (they will be full to 3/4 width) dust dividers (drawer bearers) into the 1820's. They carried many period influences thru many different eras. New England pieces let go of this infuence ealierer than some of the southern states. I attribute this to the shipping of pieces, Carters charged by weight.  
A chest with a lock on each drawer requires dust panels or you can pull the drawer out from above and access the contents of the drawer below.  Doesn't really answer your question though.
Lets explore this piece. Bottom dovetailed, with half blind dovetails, up from the bottom. Bottom will have a strip of primary wood applied to front edge.  Mold applied from underneath mitered at the front with a rear block butted on the inside of the mold for glue blocks and a stop for the back. Feet are mitered at front edges with a vertical glue block. Back feet have secondary wood notched into the back edge of the facade with a vertical glue block and then glue blocked to underside of the mold. Sides will be dovetailed into the top, mold will cover exposed dovetails of top through the sides. Top rail is glued under edge of dovetailed top. Rails will be slid in from front with a dovetail on the bottom edge flat on top edge with an 1 1/4" or better notch (for quarter column) plus whatever the stile is. Stile will be nailed onto rails then glue blocked. Dust divider(thinner than rail will be slid in from back) and glued to back edge of rail. Dust dividers were as much for bearing drawers as for keeping things (wood dust, coal dust, critters. your help) out. Everything shrinks and swells together, I feel it is superior construction engineering if you don't have to move it. The drawer guides will run cross grain from the sides and dust dividers so they should be shy of the back by 3/8"at least. Capitols and bases will be seperate pieces with the column in between. Actually you would set in the capitol under the top then the coulmn then the base then trim the overhang and apply mold to bottom. Better chests would have stop fluting. Philadelphia would stop their fluting about a third from the bottom straight across the flutes. Winchester Virginia and then down the Valley would stop their flutes with the center flutes higher than the outer flutes giving an arched upwards apperance. John Shearer from the Martinsburg (then Virginia) WVa stopped his flute concave. 1/2" back nailed on. Some drawer bottoms would be blocked to give a wider bearing surface.  
AHHHH HAAAA, Weight. That makes sense to me plus it's a very american reaction to fix a problem. A quick glance thru Hurst/Prown Southern Furniture, 1680-1830 shows some chests of drawers with full dust boards, interesting.
I don't think the issue was weight. My sense is that full dust boards require good clear wide secondary wood that England was running short of in the 18th century.  If you've got nice wide pine or cedar, full dust boards are faster and easier to make than a frame and panel divider.

Jeff, thanks for that description. I have to read that again to make sure I'm tracking 100%!

Hmmmmm, well, timber for secondary wood was not an issue in 18th century america, thats one thing that was very plentiful. What i usually see in american chests of drawers are strips of wood attached (usually nailed) to the inside of case sides for drawer runners to ride on, 3/4 or full dust boards are fairly rare. It is my understanding that full dust boards were common in London built chests during this period. In addition to the Shenandoah, it seems some makers in Charleston SC installed dust boards on their chests as well.

It's almost embarrassing what the high bid on this chest is at the moment, $570. Gee Wiz, you cant buy the walnut for that.
I don't think full dust boards are uncommon in Philly pieces.  I've seen country pieces from the Delaware Valley and even early pieces with full dust boards.  Though I think the influential Philly builders were all London trained.  (all isn't true but surely most is).

I've seen a couple nailed in drawer runners, but these have always been let into narrow dados and usually tenon into the drawer divider.

Of course, I'm still of a mind that we don't know how chests of drawers were actually used.  I think it's possible drawers were fully removed for access.  In earliest times, they called these boxes of boxes and the builder the box maker.  If true, this would help explain some of the construction details (lack of kickers for example), wear patterns and also high chests with drawers over head height.  Viewed in this light, light-weight runners may not be so bad. 
As far as dust boards in NE are concerned I suspect it was a cost issue. Th Goddard secretary I copied had full dustboards in the desk section, just nailed onto runners nailed into the side. Some Portsmouth, NH pieces had dustboards only between the second and third draw in th Federal period. They keep all the dust and wear dust from the draw above from falling onto the contents of the draw below, and as such would, I think, be a nice luxury, since often expensive fabric may have been stored in the draws-Al
Jeff & Al,

Were dust boards ever slid inot a dado that was in the drawer runner support?

Dennis Bork
Dennis, I have a high chest I just purchased which is probably 1720's (Pa or Va)with such dividers. They sit in dados in the bearer and in the back side of the rail with no central framing.
Dennis I was wrong. The dust dividers(1/2 thick) on this chest I have are in a dado (the width of the rail) in the side with a filler piece underneath to hold it up with a guide on the top side to fill out for the stile which is wider than the side. So never mind. You will certainly see it in later period pieces.
MMMMMM, high chest from 1720s huh, I would love to see a pic. OK, weight & cost of installation seem to be the top candidates for why American makers choose to mostly not install full dust boards on their chest of drawers, this seems reasonable to me.
OK 1720's might be pushing it. You can't believe everything you read on the internet.
The feet were replaced a few months before I got it. What a nice job!!! If only I had been a little earlier before they were removed.$$$ I will get pictures of the bearers soon. The top molding is a secert drawer.


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Neat @ the secret drawer, very william & mary feature, to bad about the feet but hey, they can be fixed. What kind of feet did it have, ball or bracket?

Nothing is as simple as it seems.

True, but as a collector i get to speculate like a mad man.

One of the things that i find great about American furniture is the makers were free to adapt, experiment not only in design but construction technique as well. It's my understanding that in England for instance, this was not the case, they had a powerful guild system with very rigid rules and regulations about building furniture.
OK, here is a recent sale of a Shenandoah Valley chest of drawers with 3/4 dust boards with impeccable provenance and a price tag to go with it, $48,875 with BP. An interesting feature are the wedges under the dust boards.


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